"Lost time is never found again." – Benjamin Franklin
'The problem with choices', Desmond thinks to himself, 'is that you are expected to make one.'
The hologram of Juno stares right at him with a manic, triumphant intensity as Desmond approaches the sphere.
Desmond knows that this is a bad idea, but he was given only two choices and neither of them good. He is not a master strategist, like Ezio. Nor is he a noble man – he does not see the world in black and white in the way that Ratonhnhaké:ton did. There is no cut and dry answer for him, and he is trapped in someone else's nightmare. It is a feeling that he knows well. Here at the end of all things, he is just Juno's pawn, just like those who came before.
The other option - let the world burn - isn't an option at all. Desmond is not strong enough to walk away and condemn everyone he has ever known. He has but one choice, and it is to touch the sphere and save the world. Not for humanity, but for Juno. He knows that he is most likely condemning the entire human race to a life of servitude under a false god. He knows this. But the alternative...
The cost is way too high. He is no leader, no martyr, and certainly no messiah. He likes the world very much as it is, thank you very much, imperfections and all. He can only hope that the assassins can find away to keep it that way, safe from Juno.
After he touches the sphere, it will no longer be his fight.
Desmond knows that he only has one course of action, one path to follow. Still, he has doubt, even now. So many of his ancestors spent their lives fighting the templars, fighting for the freedom of choice, and for what?
He has no choice. He has no power. He has only to touch the sphere. If doing so hands the world over to Juno, then it's not his problem; he's played his part.
His part sucks.
This is the endgame, he's crossed the board, he's taken all the pieces off. His Pawn will be replaced by a Queen, and there is nothing he can do.
Desmond tries to focus. His hand reaches for the sphere of its own accord.
His thoughts are blurry, disjointed.
'There has to be another way, if I could only just -'
The ghosts of Ezio and Altair are silently pacing him. He's hallucinating. The bleeding effect, maybe. Or the apple he carries in his pocket. He doesn't know, doesn't care, and can't look at them without looking at Juno.
'I am sorry guys, so sorry, I did all that I could, there is no other choice'
He takes a step -
'He pulls the trigger on the weapon from a time not of his own, a gift from the apple, and he knows that by using the knowledge in such a way, that he has only become its tool. It is not satisfaction that he feels as his once childhood friend, the murderer of his beloved wife and son, dies. Only emptiness.'
The thoughts aren't his, and yet they are. Another step, and then another -
"Yes, that's it," Juno says, the anticipation in her voice almost palpable. "Touch the sphere Desmond, and save your world."
Three more steps. Another ghostly figure joins him on his death march, crowding his head space with more thoughts that do not belong to him.
'He feels the knife slide into his father's flesh, so pointless... the spirits must hate him... if he could have only made him see, made him understand -'
"Focus Desmond. Save your world."
He hears, echoed in triplicate, one thought, one sentiment.
'I wish things had been different.'
"I wish things had been different," Desmond repeats aloud, full of intent. He wants, more than anything, another way, another choice.
"Wait -" Juno says, but it is too late, his hand is brushing the sphere. The current flows through him, and he hears a loud, piercing scream of anguish as he falls.
Desmond doesn't so much awaken as appear, alert and expectant all at once. He finds himself in what looks like the loading screen of the animus, and he is not alone. Nor is he corporeal, and the ability to see through his own hand creeps him out so sufficiently that he flickers out of existence for a brief moment.
"Do not doubt yourself, Desmond. This timeline is not yet set."
The voice comes from all around him. He focuses on it, and as he does, Minerva appears in front of him.
"What's going on?" He asks, although it is more like a projection of thought than speech.
"You have surprised me, Desmond. When I used the Tree to see, the branch that we now occupy was fragile, and far from the main trunk of possibility. We are in unknown territory, Desmond."
"It doesn't look unknown to me," Desmond responds with a shrug. "It looks like we're in the animus."
"I am not surprised that you perceive it as so. But, we are not in the animus, and the memory is broken. Therefore, you must mend it."
"Cryptic and creepy," Desmond grumbles, shaking his head. "Can't you give me some advice that, you know, actually makes sense?
Minerva shakes her head.
"You would not comprehend; your mind is not advanced enough to grasp what you have done. Just know that your intent was strong when you touched the Tree. Stronger than we could have anticipated. The Tree works off of intent and sacrifice. You have not saved your world, nor have you damned it. Instead, you have split off on a branch of possibility, sacrificing Juno in the process, for her intent was not as strong as your own."
Minerva looks fiercely proud for a moment, her eyes bright with vindication, before they soften. She offers Desmond a small smile.
"Do not waste this opportunity you have created, Desmond. Mend the rift and all can change."
Desmond huffs in frustration.
"What rift? I don't understand. You need to give me more than this to go on, Minerva."
"Do you not know?"
Minverva's hand brushes against his temple. His own father suddenly stands in front of him, fist flying towards his face. Desmond jerks back when it hits, but feels no pain.
'It's just a memory,' he tells himself, even as he steps away. Slowly, the image of his father fades. Desmond glares at Minerva, stuffing his hand in his pockets and feeling around to ensure to himself that the apple is still there. He doesn't trust her, doesn't trust anyone.
"Yeah, you know, Dad and I are good. We... dealt with our issues."
"Yes. And you must help another to do so. The intent to change has made all other pathways obsolete."
Minerva brushes his temple again, and he sees Connor driving his hidden blade into Haytham's heart.
The weight of it all settles in his gut like lead.
"You expect me to... change the past? Save Haytham?"
"It is not enough to save him. You must make him see, Desmond. You must make him understand. The assassin child, as well."
But Desmond has spent time in Haytham's memories. He knows the man is more stubborn than his father, and far less likely to forgive. As for Connor – Connor sees only in black and white. And neither one of them would understand his vision of the future. It seems... impossible, and he says so.
"They would not understand the world I come from, what we are trying to prevent, and how."
"And now, perhaps, you understand us a little better," Minerva replies with a smile, but her eyes are sad and knowing.
"Do not despair, Desmond, for though I did not expect that this would be the path you would choose, I have prepared for you to have help, should it come to pass. May I see the apple you carry?"
Desmond hesitates, hovers his hand just over the apple in his pocket. His fingers close into a fist.
"I will show you. Remember."
Minerva touches his temple once again, and the white fades away. Their surroundings change, and as they stabilize, Desmond recognizes the vault underneath the Vatican. It is a scene he had experienced in the animus, and he is not alone. A ghostly copy of Minerva stands in front of him along with a young Ezio Auditore.
Desmond takes a deep breath, a wary hand closing over the apple he carries, even as Ezio hands his apple over to Minerva.
The Minerva from his memories does something with the apple. He remembers handing the apple to her as Ezio, remembers her asking for it. But he hadn't given it a second thought since he relived that memory in the animus. Now, that Minerva is forcing him to review this memory once again, Desmond notices how Minerva holds her hand over Ezio's apple, resulting in Ezio stumbling forward just a little bit. Ezio's apple glows briefly before Minerva hands it back to him.
Desmond feels a tingling sensation as the memory fades, leaving only Minerva standing in front of him, hand outstretched and waiting.
"I have borrowed something, and hidden it deep within the Tree. With time, It has managed to branch and flourish. It has learned to adapt, to communicate. It has become self-aware. It has helped you before, and will do so now. It is the snake in the branches, and it detests the cross."
Desmond holds the apple out, and Minerva holds her hand over it. The apple glows brightly, then begins to fade. After a moment, the apple starts to crumble, the remnants slipping through his fingers like grains of sand.
"What gives – I needed that!" Desmond exclaims loudly.
Minerva's head tilts back, her eyes glowing from within.
"And I will return it to you, in a different form. And then, I will be no more. As you extinguished Juno's life with your intent, so will I extinguish my own. But first, a warning – do not return to this place Desmond, for it is no longer yours to return to."
Minerva closes her eyes and holds her hands together.
"Erudito. Come." A whisper of a breath, a demand, echoing with powerful intent. It is palpable; Desmond flickers in and out with the strength of it.
Desmond knows the name. He remembers untraceable emails; the hacker within Abstergo's network that was never found. The ghost in the system. A mysterious contact who sent him the passwords for the other templar's computers. The one responsible for the seed of doubt that led to the revelation of Lucy's true allegiances.
Erudito was known to the Assassins and Templars alike; an independent third party, trusted by neither; not a part of the assassins, yet no friend to the templars.
'Make sure you stay in the loop.'
It had been a warning – no, a command. From Erudito.
Erudito.Italian for Scholar. A partial anagram, missing one important letter.
A. Assassin. Auditore.
"You must succeed, Desmond. For your people; for the memory of mine. I bid you farewell... and good luck."
Minerva glows brighter and brighter. On instinct, Desmond tries to back up, covering his eyes with his arm, but it makes no difference.
The blast, when it comes, hits him just the same, and the whitespace defragments around him. He blinks his eyes, takes in a startled breath and looks around. The precursor sphere – or the Tree, as Minerva called it – is in front of him, pulsing, and glowing brightly. Too brightly. He pulls himself to his feet and turns to run, only to trip over someone else. His father? No – the man is wearing the white robes of an assassin, but isn't anyone who had been with him just before he touched the Tree. The other person is face down on the floor, unmoving. Behind him, the platform holding the Tree starts to rumble. Desmond swears under his breath, and prods the other person with the tip of his shoe.
"Wake up, man. We've got to go."
When the man doesn't respond, Desmond bends and rolls him over. The man is well armed; a wicked looking sword is attached to his belt, as well as a number of knives and pouches. His face is obscured by his hood. Desmond checks the rise and fall of his chest, ensuring that the man is breathing, before pushing the hood back just slightly.
He finds himself flipped over and on the ground and pinned before he can even suck in a breath of shock. Desmond feels the cold steel of a blade against his neck, and meets the cold eyes of Ezio Auditore with his own.